Sunday, June 3, 2012

Tennis, Poker, and Profit

During a typical rally, the ball will spend more than 99.5 percent of its time traveling between players, sailing through the air and ricocheting off the ground. It is in contact with the racket for the remaining fraction of a percent. The players control that fraction. Physics controls everything else. 
--Jonah Lehrer, "The Physics of Grass, Clay, and Cement"

One of the curses of being an obsessive poker player is the inability to "switch off" thinking about the game. I'll be watching a TV program with the wife, or listening to the radio in the car, only to find myself comparing what I'm seeing or hearing to the game of poker. For instance, I recently read the quote above by Lehrer on the physics of tennis... and couldn't help putting his words into the context of card play.

In tennis, Lehrer points out that a player actually has very little interaction with the ball. For just a few milliseconds on each return the racket is in brief contact with the ball, imparting force and spin, and then the rest is up to physics and the opposing player. All you can do in tennis is read your opponent and his location on the court, and then position yourself in such a way as to have the best possible chance to strike the ball properly when it comes back your way again. Where you stand, your aerobic shape, your ability to impart top spin, hit a lob, a dropshot, a backhand drive, etc., plus how hard you strike the ball... these are the few discrete things that you can influence. The rest is essentially out of your control. The guy who wins is the one who does this handful of things better than his opponent.

It seems to me that poker is also a lot like this. The shuffle, the game texture, the actions and psychology of the other players, the cards you're dealt, your seat and position, etc. are for the most part out of your control. The few things we can control are whether we're prepared to play or not, and whether we have our emotions under control. At that point, it's really just a question of whether we should fold, check, bet, raise, or call, and if we bet, how much (which of course is all about how good you are at REDi compared to your opponents). Otherwise, we're at the mercy of everything else happening at the table.

What this all means is that you have to leverage those few things you can control as much as possible. Your opponents are attempting to control these same factors on their side of the table, so in a sense, whomever has the greatest (and finest) control will win. In other words, poker is a game of small edges. Learn to harness and exploit these edges better than your opponents, and you will win in the long run. If you don't, you won't.

I've written about this before (e.g., here), but it still bears repeating: Profit equals Volume x Edge, and there are three basic categories of Edge at the poker table: Preparation, Technical Skills, and Emotional Control. That's it's. Master these three and you're going to make a lot of money at the game.

I spent some time yesterday going over my month of May results, looking for leaks and evaluating my overall game. As I sifted through the HEM data, filtering this way and that, there was one thing that jumped out at me like a supersized jack-in-the box: My win rate is strongly a function of the stakes I play at.

My Edge is quite good at the small stakes, but it needs serious work at mid-stakes. The data show that I'm a solid, consistent winner at $25NL, earning an average of $27/hour played over a large sample size, with a nice, smooth upward sloping graph with little deviation or variance. At $50NL, I'm still making money, but it's at a slightly lower hourly rate than $25NL and the swings are bigger. And as I move up even higher, my profit levels off... and then noses over at higher stakes. I'm breaking even at $100NL, but with lots of variance and swings, and I'm losing pretty soundly at $200N (in fact with little variance). In other words, I've mastered the edges required to beat $25NL, and I'm nearly there at $50NL, but I've got serious work to do if I want to beat the games consistently at $100NL or higher. The key to doing this, of course, is to improve the small aspects and edges of my game where my opponents are currently better than me.

In other words, I simply have to work on my top spin. The rest is just physics.

All-in for now...

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